North·NWT Votes 2019

Kam Lake candidates trade cost of living solutions in community debate

Six candidates running for MLA in Yellowknife's Kam Lake riding struggled to differentiate themselves from one another in a Tuesday evening debate, though they did offer some innovative ideas to decrease the N.W.T.'s cost of living.

6 candidates in crowded field find common ground on most issues

Left to right: Kam Lake candidates Rommel Silverio, Robert Hawkins, Caitlin Cleveland, Cherish Winsor, Abdullah Al-Mahamud, and Kieron Testart took part in a community debate Tuesday evening. (Garrett Hinchey/CBC)

Six candidates running for MLA in Yellowknife's Kam Lake riding struggled to differentiate themselves from one another in a Tuesday evening debate, though they did offer some innovative ideas to decrease the N.W.T.'s cost of living.

Hosted at N.J. Macpherson school, the candidates spoke to a packed house, with late arriving viewers grabbing chairs from a stack at the back of the gym to add to those already set out by organizers.

Candidates found common ground on many issues: all agreed that the territory should establish an arms-length advocate for children and families in the territory, work to close the municipal funding gap, and ease paths to resource development by investing in infrastructure and cutting red tape.

However, a question on lowering cost of living, framed through a look at private power utility Northland Utilities' role in the N.W.T.'s power distribution model, allowed voters to see differences in how each of their potential representatives could tackle the issue in the legislature.

Northland Utilities in crosshairs, public insurance proposed

Incumbent candidate Kieron Testart began by suggesting that the territory implement a new tax incentive he called a "northern living benefit" — a credit paid to each resident. He coupled that by suggesting that the N.W.T. create a universal basic income program.

"That's my fundamental philosophy to this," he said. "If you put money into people's pockets, you'll grow the economy. That spending will be local spending. It's going to stay in the North, and benefit northerners."

Business owner Abdullah Al-Mahamud said that his plan centres around three planks: lowering energy costs by investing in renewable energy, drastically decreasing the cost of child care through government subsidies, and creating a public insurance option in the territory, an idea that he says will both increase revenue to the government and lower costs for residents.

The candidates spoke to a packed house, with late attendees setting folding chairs, in addition to those already placed by organizers. (Garrett Hinchey/CBC)

"Electricity costs a lot of money, but those are the monies that my insurance support program can provide. Auto and home insurance can generate government $80 to $100 million regularly. So that revenue, we can implement to ourselves: our daycare program, affordable housing, renewable energy."

Former MLA Robert Hawkins was the only candidate to take aim at Northland Utilities, saying that the company's "power is too expansive."

"I'm not against Northland Utilities ... they have a monopoly. That's the issue. Nothing else. And what happens with a monopoly? The prices go up and up."

Hawkins said that Yellowknife needs to open up power franchise agreements to competition, a move that recently led to the territory's public power corporation taking over Hay River's power franchise.

"Power bills are outrageous," he said. "This is not crazy thinking. This is about opening up competition. This is how we survive."

Responding next, Yellowknife city councillor Rommel Silverio said that the decision on the power franchise would come when the contract expires in 2020, but "we don't want to be like Hay River right now," referring to ongoing court battles in that community. 

Grow the population, increase the tax base, say candidates

Instead, Silverio's ideas on reducing the cost of living centre around growing the population — an idea that he says would lead to more federal formula funding and increase the tax base.

"I firmly believe that if we are able to grow our population, then we will get some relief," he said.

Silverio touted growth through supporting immigration to Yellowknife, and attracting new small businesses to grow the economy.

Though the candidates all agreed that the N.W.T. needed to lower its cost of living and increase revenue, they had very different ideas on how to get there. (Garrett Hinchey/CBC)

YWCA president Cherish Winsor, responding next, said the two most important points were "keeping our economy strong, and keeping our population up."

"We need to focus on keeping families here and having the infrastructure for families to stay. That means increasing infrastructure. That means affordable housing," she said.

Winsor called social supports, such as government housing, "band-aid solutions that do nothing for the cost of living," instead saying she wants to look at increasing entry-level housing units for singles and seniors. 

"The biggest need in Yellowknife is for bachelor units, or single bedroom units ... we don't have that."

Winsor also iterated her support for universal childcare and a guaranteed income program.

Caitlin Cleveland, a policy analyst and entrepreneur, was the last to respond to the question. She too focused on growing and maintaining population, expanding on Silverio's comments on immigration by saying the government could focus on reconnecting immigrant families, and working to provide them meaningful employment once they arrive. 

Cleveland also suggested that the government look at its student financial assistance program.

"When we first put the program together, we wanted our students to go to university," she said. "Now we want them to go to university, and we want them to come home. So how can we change the program so that we can attract our students to come home and work for us here?"

The debate, live streamed on OpenNWT's Facebook page, was one of two on the night, as candidates in the Yellowknife North riding took part in an event at St. Patrick high school gymnasium. That debate was also streamed live

The territorial election is Oct. 1.

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